Rev. Peter Kakos: Efforts to help area homeless remain short of goal

Last modified: Tuesday, February 18, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The bitter news of the death of a homeless person, found Feb. 1 on the grounds of Smith College, reawakens us to the harsh reality of the critically low supply of housing.

In fact, the Gazette reported that Kyle William Amidon, 35, was told that there was not even an extra bed available at the Hampshire Interfaith Cot Shelter on Center Street on the day after Christmas. This dearth of beds afflicts not only our region but virtually every urban area in the nation.

A short history of this widespread shortage begins in the mid 1980s, which saw a spike in property and home prices. Big profits could be had by converting single-room-occupancy apartments into condos, or the demolition of old rooming houses to make way for luxury accommodations. In Northampton alone, the number of SROs — single-room-occupancy units — decreased from more than 400 in the mid 1980s to less than 200 a decade later and declining ever since. Once upon a time, a person could get a cheap weekly room. Now she or he cannot afford one, even if it could be found.

Almost overnight, the cities of our nation woke up to seeing individuals under bridges or in hallways. And at the urging of President Reagan, we were to ask whether they were “needy, or truly needy,” all of which served the rhetorical purpose of blaming them for not being able to find a bed. Thirty years later, even after all of the compassionate efforts and generous donations of those in Northampton, including many businesses and the United Way, the shelter Band-Aids are fraying, barely able to stop the bleeding.

We face a humanitarian crisis. But not all recognize it. The affluence created by bloated housing prices has distanced the public from noticing, let alone caring.

What else aren’t we seeing? The impact of greed. Who remembers the savings and loan scandal of the mid 1990s, when so many of our large financial institutions had run amok that federal regulators, with limited resources, were able to prosecute a fraction of the guilty?

Fast forward to 2007, and, once again, we plunged into a deeper hole, the Great Recession, which to a great degree came about because — you guessed it — the giants of the mortgage industry persuaded would-be homebuyers not to be worried by looming balloon payments, because their house values would rise. Our nation is still reeling over those out-of-control practices.

Meanwhile, as one of the hundreds of volunteers of the “emergency” cot shelter program of Northampton since its inception in 1995, I extend heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of Kyle Amidon. Please know that as we keep on doing the best we can, we mourn that it isn’t enough.

The Rev. Peter Kakos lives in Florence and was co-founder of The Samaritan Inn shelter in Westfield.